Body of Missing Young Woman Found in Suitcase

James A. Merritt, a 35-year-old man from Morehouse, Missouri, has been sentenced to life imprisonment plus an additional 29 years and a $25,000 fine for the murder of 18-year-old Haley Marie Decker. The young woman’s remains were found in a suitcase in an Illinois wildlife refuge in 2020. Decker, originally from Normal, Illinois, had been reported missing 22 days prior to the discovery of her body.

Merritt was convicted in January on charges of second-degree murder, armed criminal action, tampering with physical evidence, and trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The sentencing was handed down by Circuit Judge Joshua Underwood earlier this month.

Decker’s body was discovered in the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Pulaski County, Illinois, by a man walking with his child. The pair noticed blonde hair protruding from a piece of luggage and alerted the police. Upon investigation, it was determined that Decker had been repeatedly struck in the head with a blunt object.

Investigators were able to link Decker to Merritt through digital evidence and her cellular phone data. A search warrant executed at Merritt’s residence revealed evidence that Decker had once lived with him. The investigation also revealed that Decker had been involved in sex work at the time of her death.

Merritt admitted to police that he had met Decker online and had taken her to various small towns in Missouri for sex work. Phone records also indicated that Merritt and Decker had been in the same location and had traveled to the wildlife refuge on January 25, 2020. Blood was found in Merritt’s residence and his vehicle appeared to have been cleaned of blood.

The investigation, which involved collaboration between the Illinois State Police and the Missouri Highway Patrol, was praised by ISP Zone 7 Commander Capt. Nicholas Dill. After a 90-minute deliberation, the jury found Merritt guilty on all charges.

Decker’s life was marked by struggles, including a psychiatric diagnosis, drug use, juvenile detention, and a stint in foster care. She had a child at 16 and had been in and out of treatment facilities. Her family remembers her as a woman who had often gone without contact for long periods.

In 2019, Decker had posted on Facebook about being in an abusive relationship. Her last communication was a Snapchat picture sent to a friend on January 25, 2020, tagged with Morehouse, Missouri, as the location.